As far as organizationally controlled actions, the Philadelphia 76ers have taken all the right steps to improve their chances at winning the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery, thus ensuring themselves the number 1 overall pick and the proverbial pick of the litter of next year’s highly touted draft class. By shipping off franchise-cornerstone Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans on draft night, garnering a hefty return of the player taken 6th overall, Nerlens Noel, as well as a 2014 1st round pick (top-5 protected) Sam Hinkie and the Sixers brass tipped their hand for the franchise’s plans to build a winner from the bottom up. Rather than the meddling in the extensive ‘middle-class’ of the NBA, where the most one can hope for is a home playoff series, the 76ers decided it was best to use what little tangible value they had on a mediocre-at-best team, to attain potentially greater value down the road, along with a couple of young, high-ceiling players that could prove to be franchise players down the road.
While the debate on whether or not the Sixers made a mistake by trading away a player who, for all of Jrue Holiday’s faults, is a talent that could probably hold down a starting role on a championship team, the fact of the matter is, there is no pressure for the team to overspend on questionable free agents or, more importantly, compete night-in and night-out in the Eastern Conference. With the way that the roster stands now, ignoring the possibility that the team may move more pieces including Evan Turner, I find it difficult, without looking at any sort of schedule, for them to put together 25-30 wins.
While addressing the team’s stagnant roster was important, the Sixers’ brass has made sure to address other areas to make sure their team is looking up at as many other squads before season’s end. As of today, August 6, 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers are the only ‘Big 4′ sports team that does not have a head coach or manager. To put things in perspective, there are currently three major leagues that are not currently playing meaningful, regular season games and all of them have a coach, except for the 76ers. While in some cases, an impressive roster of veteran players can make up for the absence of a head coach, the current constitution of the Philadelphia roster lacks a certain ‘leadership quality’ that is usually present in such cases. In fact, at 25 years old, fringe starter Thaddeus Young is currently holding down the position of ‘longest tenured 76er’. While I do see Young’s value on the team moving forward, even after the great purge, his current role on the team only highlights their lack of talent.
Fortunately for the organization, the tumultuous sports scene in the Philadelphia area has made the 76ers deliberation more of a secondary story. In fact, the team’s announcement that they had narrowed their search to a few select names was almost an afterthought amidst the Riley Cooper situation and the Phillies tailspin into the depths of baseball.
Y! Sources: 76ers have asked four NBA assistants back for second-round of interviews for head coaching job. http://t.co/DXMXeaUVIs
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) August 5, 2013
So, with the team going to hysterical lengths to avoid establishing a leader at the head of their roster, the upper management of the team appears to be allocating most of their focus toward making sure their 2013-2014 is as miserable, from a win-loss standpoint, as possible. I do think that Michael Carter-Williams is the type of talent that can succeed in the NBA from the point guard position and Nerlens Noel, when fully healthy, has the chance to establish himself as the first legitimate rim-protector that the team has seen since the early 2000s. However, with Noel’s recovery time having his return generously slated for around Christmas, and the dredge of talent surrounding Carter-Williams, it is safe to say the team does not expect their two new players to turn things around this season.
With the team’s immediate plans apparently geared toward losing, they are going to need some help from the rest of the league, as well as the NBA league offices to find themselves in the ideal position come lottery-night. For one, the Sixers are not the only team taking a minimalist approach to the upcoming season. One such team is the Celtics, who waived good-bye to the final two pieces of their ‘Big Three’, sending Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets. The Phoenix Suns who, despite acquiring Eric Bledsoe and drafting Alex Len, appear in no rush to return to the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Cellar-dwellar stalwarts such as the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic both appear poised for another run at the lottery. While there are countless other teams who could end up toward the bottom of the league standings, the Sixers appear to have as strong a shot as any other squad in the race for last place.
The last factor into the recipe for the Sixers to maximize their draft position was the release of the NBA schedule. While strength of schedule does not hold as much weight as it does in the NFL, the dynamic of an NBA schedule can determine a great deal on how a team goes through the grind of the 82-game schedule. If the Sixers, as presently constructed, are to put themselves in a position to win the lottery, their schedule must be as conducive to long, unrelenting stretches of losing basketball. A team cannot win the lottery in the first two weeks of the season, but, with how dreadful some teams have been the past few seasons, they can lose it. It is important to focus on each aspect of the schedule as part of one, big rebuilding project with the hope of seeing a few signs of progress along the way. For the 76ers to be able to accomplish this, looking at their schedule, a few things must happen.
Slow out of the Gate
As mentioned earlier, losing a huge chunk of games early in the season does not necessarily guarantee a team finishes toward the bottom of the league. The Washington Wizards lost their first 12 games of the 2012-2013 season and finished with the seventh-worst record in the league. While the Wizards possessed more young, promising talent than the 76ers and lucked out in the lottery, collecting the third overall pick despite their record, their season showed that, with proper coaching and progress, a team can recover from a rocky start.
Having said that, a team splitting their first 20 games when other teams are working out their growing pains over the course of a season can be detrimental to a potential tanked season. The past few seasons, with Doug Collins at the helm, the Sixers were usually one of the more prepared teams when it came to the start of the season. Last year in particular, one kept wondering how the Sixers were not closer to the bottom the overall NBA standings as they bled losses towards the end of the season. There was no question, by the end of the season, that the 76ers were toward the bottom of the NBA landscape. Yet an 11-9 start to the season made things much more difficult to plummet when other teams were going through the same late-season peril. With matchups against: the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, Bulls, and an opening night tilt with the defending champion Heat all in their first 10 games of the season, the Sixers shouldn’t have too much trouble getting off to the necessary rocky start to bury themselves in the lottery race from the get-go.
Lose to Your Division
While basketball is not as focused on piling up division matchups as baseball is, the Sixers in particular, are in a position where being in one of the more impressive division in the league should work toward turning in a lottery-worthy record. The New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets are both legitimate contenders in the East. The last few years, the 76ers had enough talent and were well-coached enough to steal games against these teams. However, with both teams sporting aging rosters and gearing up to try to dethrone Miami atop the conference, one can imagine that both of these teams will come out strong in division matchups. Considering the impressive backcourts of both New York teams, I would be surprised to see the 76ers take one game against them total.
The other two teams in the Atlantic pose an interesting situation for the 76ers. The aforementioned Celtics are in a very interesting situation. Following a period of prominence spearheaded by coach Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and, to a lesser extent, Ray Allen, the Celtics have undergone a massive face lift. Pierce and Garnett moved a few states south to chase another title with the Brooklyn Nets, and Doc Rivers, with seemingly no immediate direction with Boston, switched coasts to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to a shot at a title. Despite the overhaul, the Celtics, as they stand, still boast one of the most, if not most talented player in the division. While players like Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and a few promising draft picks make the Celtics roster respectable, now-healthy Rajon Rondo is one of the best players in the league. Following the departure of Rivers, speculation swirled on whether the Celtics would clean house and let Rondo go to the highest bidder. Instead, they made a bigger splash, luring Butler head coach and promising young basketball mind Brad Stevens to the professional ranks to take over for the departed Rivers. Since the acquisition of Stevens, the debate has gone both ways as to how the Celtics should approach the next few seasons. The hiring of Stevens is the equivalent to the Eagles hiring Chip Kelly in the NFL. Stevens is widely acknowledged as the premiere young basketball coach, regardless of rank, but has no experience in the NBA. While trading Rondo would net the Celtics an immense return and assure them a season that would drop them toward the bottom of the league, they would also be making Stevens’ first exposure to the NBA one of losing and unacceptable efforts. Considering Stevens’ ability to yield the highest return from what was looked at as rosters with low-end talent, I find that approach to be less than ideal. If the Celtics hold on to Rondo, with the solid supporting cast of players who have won in the past, I can’t imagine the 76ers would take more than one game from them.
Which brings us to the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors recently traded former top pick Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks and, even with the likes of Rudy Gay in the fold, don’t appear to serious as far as contenders go. Similar to the Celtics, perhaps to a lesser extent, they cannot tank with a player like Gay on the roster. He is too good and, even in a less than ideal situation, would probably be able to win a few games on his own. Paired with budding big man Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors sport two very solid players as far as the division goes. However, perhaps more so than any other team in the league, the Raptors have a strong sentiment to lose, a lot. Earlier this summer, rising freshman and debated 1st overall pick in the 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins, an Ontario native, expressed his desire to play for his home country team when he does ascend to the NBA. It is impossible to quantify the ‘riggedness’ of the NBA Lottery over the past few decade. With that said, there has been an alarming number of ‘feel-good stories’ winning the lottery while the team with the worst record sits, dumbfounded as to how their situation got any worse. From the Knicks getting Patrick Ewing in the first lottery, to the Chicago Bulls winning the lottery and winning the rights to Chicago-native Derrick Rose, and, less we forget, the darlings of the lottery that everyone still seems to feel bad for: the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers won the lottery of lotteries when they scooped up Akron-native LeBron James with the first pick in 2001. While the franchise was licking their wounds after James’ free agency departure to Miami, they won another lottery in 2011 and netted Kyrie Irving who, when healthy, is about as dynamic a player as there is in the league. Finally, while the rumors surround a potential return to Cleveland for LeBron, the NBA continued to put together an acceptable roster for the King, giving the Cavaliers the top pick in the 2013 lottery, with which they made Anthony Bennett the selection. While this is not a medium for me to express my confusion with why everyone feels bad for the Cavaliers, it is easy to say that there is at least some sort of fishiness that is inherent in the lottery.
While it is true that bringing a marquee talent like Wiggins to Philadelphia would be a great boost for a league in a market that has been dormant for over a decade now, it is hard to imagine them passing up a chance to spread the game internationally, even if just north of the border. With a similar situation to Philadelphia, where new management is in charge of a bunch of players that the team has no connection to, it is tough to put expectations on where the Raptors will end up by season’s start. If they stick with their roster as constructed, they probably finish with too strong a record by the end to be in the conversation for the top pick. Yet, if they decide to move a player like Rudy Gay, they could feasibly struggle as much, or close to as much as the 76ers do. Depending on what they decide on, the 76ers could squeeze out a win, or take the season series vs. the Raptors. At this point, it is up to them.
To avoid the notion that I want this team to go 0-82 this season, I’d like to preface things by saying I am more excited to watch 76ers basketball than in a few years. Once it became obvious that Andrew Bynum was not going to suit up last season, Jrue Holiday’s allure wore off for me. Having a talented point guard in the NBA is great. Having a talented point guard with no one to pass to and watch him develop bad habits is downright frustrating. While he wasn’t the dynamic, stat-sheet stuffing player he was in the first half of the season, Holiday still was entertaining during the latter parts of the season. Despite this, watching the team play was disgusting. Once it became evident that Doug Collins would not be coaching beyond last season, any and all direction with the team was lost. There are few things worse than watching a team that has no bearing play the games that they have to, just to collect a paycheck.
As far as competition-ready talent on the roster, next year’s 76ers team will not be where last year’s team was. They’ve lost a major chunk of their scoring, even with Evan Turner still on the team, and no one left on the roster proved to any extent that they could hold their own with the league’s best. While the expectation is that the team will sign up a few free agents to reach the salary floor, don’t expect the 76ers to drop any major coin on what’s left of a forgettable free agent class. Instead, who ever the team decides to hire as head coach will be in charge of a roster with only a small handful of their future framework in place. Unless they see something in Evan Turner that we’ve been missing for the past three seasons, Thaddeus Young is the only piece that I see with any value on the roster moving forward. For this reason, Michael Carter-Williams will have a large workload on his lap right from the start. With his unique size and skill set, Carter-Williams has the potential to be a facilitating point guard who can contribute in every area of the game. By acquiring a potentially dynamic player at point guard and a legitimate rim protecting prospect, the 76ers have a couple of pieces that could make up a starting five on a contending team.
With this in mind, it will be nice to see the team succeed in a certain capacity. If they went 20-62, but their young players showed no evidence of being able to play at the next level, Sam Hinkie’s draft-night splash would be a failure, plain and simple. However, if the team is able to show progress, battle on and respect their home court, and develop the early stages of organizational chemistry, things will be looking up as the season draws to a close. It will be at this time that the Sixers will be entering a final stretch of 13 games, with 9 of them on the road. If the team is to solidify themselves at the top of the lottery drawing pool, this stretch must be brutal for them. While a team cannot win the lottery at the beginning of the season, they can win or lose it at the end. The combination of a season’s worth of adjustments and improvements with a late-season roster of teams who are also mailing it in can represent meaningless wins, damaging chances at a top pick. While I expect that the 76ers will be doing most of their streaky losing at the beginning of the season, this stretch, where they face: the Bulls, Spurs, Rockets, Celtics, Hawks, Grizzlies, and Heat (all playoff teams), appears to be the final down-slope on what is hopefully a gradual rise to prominence.
So while some teams look to contend and others struggle for relevancy, the 76ers laid their plan out in black-and-white ink. The NBA is a star-driven league. No matter how often a ‘good story’ team like the Pacers or Grizzlies try to buck the trend, usually the NBA champion is the team that has the best player on it. In a league where a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who two years ago were looked upon as the model franchise, are now faced with the prospect of making adjustments to supplement their superstar Kevin Durant in the perfect way, it is easy to see what winning takes in today’s league. The 76ers do not have a superstar on their team. Even if Nerlens Noel were to achieve his physical potential, he probably would not even top out at Dwight Howard with his slight frame. What the 76ers do have is two young, dynamic, charismatic young players (Carter-Williams and Noel) who are hungry to win and ready to lead a franchise. The leader of a team does not always have to be the premiere talent on the roster. If Carter-Williams and Noel are able to deal with the growing pains that come with breaking into the NBA, I expect next season to be more of a benefit than a hindrance. The only way that will work is if each player puts an onus on making good, sound basketball decisions and not trying to force what is not there. If Carter-Williams makes a great pass to Justin Holiday and he does not score, it does not mean he should never make that pass again. Thought processes like this are what will keep the 76ers two young stars from being draft fizzles on a team that scratched together an extra 2-3 wins, and allow them to excel when the rest of the Philadelphia roster catches up with them from a talent standpoint.
Anyone expecting a magical season, with the current state of the NBA and the 76ers specifically, need to wake up ASAP. A team with any hope of raising a trophy at the end of the season would have had a coach on draft night, let alone the night that the roster was announced. The league is constructed in a way that does not allow for the quick turnover fix-up, but requires foresight, long-term management, and a little bit of luck in terms of timing to reach the top. Sam Hinkie appears to have the foresight aspect of things at the top of his priority list. At the very least, the team will hold two first round picks in next years draft and a boatload of cap room until Hinkie decides to use it. The management and observation of Nerlens Noel’s injury along with the development of Michael Carter-Williams game are as crucial a responsibility as this team has had since trying to keep Allen Iverson reeled in during his tenure. Finally, the team picked as good a year as any to drop from the mediocre and wallow with the bottom-feeders. For once, and hopefully only once, let’s embrace the struggles and learn how to love this team all over again. The remodeling started on draft night, the construction can continue when the 76ers host the world champion Miami Heat, October 30, 2013. If anyone is feeling lucky, that one feels like a loss, and you can bank on it.